Abidjan — It's been over a year since the post-electoral crisis in Ivory Coast, but thousands of ex-combatants still hold onto weapons and ammunition. Tired of waiting for various disarmament operations to unburden their compatriots, some young Ivoirians have gotten the ball rolling themselves - on the football field. Two Sundays ago saw the official kick-off of Football for Peace.
On 21 October, under the blazing sun, male and female footballers perspire profusely. Their intrepid moves are cheered by excited spectators. On the field, the players stop intermittently to mimic a scenario and deliver a message on the dangers of small arms proliferation. In the crowd, members of the Ivorian division of the West African Action Network on Small Arms (WAANSA-CI) distribute leaflets to raise awareness of the issue.
The WAANSA-CI decided to launch Football pour la Paix, or Football for Peace, in Bonoua, a city 60 kilometres east of Abidjan. To do so, the Ivorian organization found no better solution than to follow an example from across the continent. They invited over Victor Sewabana and Karera Jean De Dieu, two Rwandans with experience using sports to better society.
"Mediation. Game. Mediation," Sewabana says, explaining the three-phase process of a Football for Peace event. "There is mediation at the start of the game, in the sense that the players come together and agree on the rules by which the game will be played, since there is no referee on the field. Then there is the game and, right after the match, another mediation where the players of both teams get together and discuss the various disputes that may have arisen during the game."
He continues: "At this stage, both teams also act out scenes and sketches aimed at sensitizing the public on the risks associated with the circulation of small arms. This last part is followed by plenty of activities and quiz games to engage the audience."
"No weapons here"
"It is difficult to speak to people directly about a disarmament project and obtain their commitment," says Karamoko Diakité, president of the WAANSA-CI. "When you talk about arms, some people automatically turn away. When you mention the issue of small arms, the people will reply: 'There are no weapons here.'
According to Ivorian defence minister Paul Koffi Koffi, some 30,000 ex-rebel soldiers have yet to be disarmed. The number is even higher, says Sophie DA Camara, director of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration division of the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), who estimates it to be between 60,000 and 80,000.
"Although they may vary from one source to another, these figures ultimately depict an undisputable reality: former rebel soldiers are still armed and represent a real threat to the peace process," says Diakité.
No ex-soldiers from either of the once warring sides turned in weapons at the kick-off match. But WAANSA-CI staff got their leaders and members (who still hold weapons or know places where weapons are hidden) to enroll in the programme.
For WAANSA-CI Konaté Mampha staff member, the response from the campaign's main target group has been quite positive. He can see how football has been used as an entree to discuss disarmament, once so sensitive a topic. WAANSA-CI has used the game to turn it into a common issue and get youth involved. Before that, they were reluctant.
Following a seminar on the risks associated with the movement of small arms, a large crowd has gathered in Bonoua's Popo Carnival area, which was chosen to host the first football game.
"Never before were we requested to openly give our views on the issue of the proliferation of small arms and disarmament, for fear stigmatization," says a young spectator. "But here, within Football for Peace, we came together and spoke and we understood one another. This action really needs to be encouraged."
Actual destruction of weapons and ammunition will be the next step in the programme. More matches are scheduled this season and WAANSA-CI hopes the games might end with people turning in their arms.
Another notable feature of Football for Peace is that the players are mixed. "Youth teams that compete on the field are composed of men and women, and only the goals scored by women count," explains Jean De Dieu.
Like many other young people, Amélié Anoh made the trip to see the event live. "This is a first: Women and men playing as teammates on the same side!" she says. "I wanted to see it for myself, that's why I made the trip to the stadium; otherwise, I'm not a football fan."
A new tune
Music has also helped, says Karamoko. "We had to find artists popular among youth to perform a song on disarmament, and we succeeded. It helps convey the message better."
Les Patrons was the music group chosen for the occasion. If the sound of homeward-bound spectators singing verses of the band's song was any indication, Football for Peace is catching on.